KANSAS CITY, Kan. — Elementary-aged students in Kansas City, Kansas will now have the opportunity to get swim lessons at no cost headed into the summer.

The effort follows the drowning of 13-year-old Emmanuel Solomon at Parkwood Pool last summer.

Community leaders say it highlighted the need for water safety skills among children in the community.

There are already 40 kids enrolled in the new “Learn To Swim” program with a goal of getting 400 students involved through the end of the year.

Wednesday’s kick-off at the Providence YMCA hosted Olympic Gold Medalist Cullen Jones for the ribbon cutting. Jones said a part of his mission is to cut the racial stigma that follows swimming.

“I always thought I had to play basketball or football or track. Swimming was not for ‘black folks’ cause that’s what I heard all throughout my community,” Jones said.

“You’re still doing that ‘swim thing.’ That ‘swim thing.’ Constantly. I just loved being around my friends,” Jones said.

Garry Linn, Senior Vice President of Operations for the YMCA of Greater Kansas City, said that disparities in swim ability is a major issue. About 40% of Caucasian youth do not know how to swim.

“Meanwhile, nearly 70% of African Americans, youth, identify themselves as having little to no swimming ability. And nearly 50% of all Hispanic youth identify as the same,” Linn said.

The new Learn To Swim program, jump-started by an investment from Warner Media, comes after the tragic death of Solomon. His family said they came to America after living in a refugee camp in Uganda.

His drowning pulled focus to swimming and the push for more kids to learn how.

“Emmanuel loved to talk about his home in Africa and his family. He was fiercely loving to his parents and siblings. The sudden passing of Emmanuel Solomon impacted our entire community,” Dr. Anna Stubblefield, Superintendent of Kansas City, Kansas Public Schools, said.

“The reason why I’m here is because of Emmanuel,” Jones said.

“The work that this community is doing is a pillar that we need to be doing throughout all of the us. And, as an Olympian and someone who almost drowned at the age of 5, there are a lot of highlights in my career but it saddens me when I go to a community that has been struck by a drowning,” Jones said.

The Learn To Swim program uses busing through the school district for kids in elementary school. There is a future goal to expand this opportunity to middle and high school students.

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